How to Become a Missing Persons Investigator

Learn how to become a missing persons investigator. Research the job duties and licensing requirements and find out how to start a career in public and private investigations.

Should I Become a Missing Persons Investigator?

Missing persons investigators are licensed private investigators or sworn law enforcement officers who use standard police methods and specialized training to search for and locate people who have disappeared. Investigators may confront a variety of cases, including runaway children, potential or actual victims of kidnapping or other violent crimes, and persons with mental disabilities who have become lost. Investigators use digital and physical surveillance techniques, specialized database software, and interpersonal skills to solve cases.

Investigators may be required to work irregular hours, including nights and weekends, in order to complete their investigations as quickly as possible. The work associated with locating missing persons may be physically demanding as well as emotionally taxing. Investigators are often armed for protection against potentially dangerous criminals and other risks. Therefore, investigators must be able to remain patient during long surveillance sessions, maintain a high level of integrity, be creative with available resources, comfortable communicating with law enforcement and clients, and be able to work under immense pressure.

Career Requirements

Education Level High school diploma minimum; bachelor's degree recommended
Experience Generally three years experience conducting investigations, interviewing suspects, and/or running surveillance missions
Licensure/Certification Private investigator state license and weapons permit
Training First aid and CPR, emergency preparedness, state and federal law, self-defense, firearms, surveillance; police academy training program
Key Skills Communication, decision-making, computer, problem-solving, patience, integrity, creativity, curiosity, resourcefulness, and attention to detail
Median Salary (2014) $44,570 (for all private detectives and investigators)
$79,870 (for all detectives and criminal investigators)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; State-run private investigator licensing information websites

Step 1: Graduate High School or College

Law enforcement investigators are usually required to complete some postsecondary coursework as well as build related work experience and graduate from a police academy. Federal agents are expected to graduate college. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that private investigators do not have uniform education or experience requirements.

Success Tip:

  • Pursue a bachelor's degree. Most federal agencies require applicants to hold bachelor's degrees, and many police departments and private investigations firms also require bachelor's degrees for advancement or promotion.

Step 2: Complete Initial Training Programs

Individuals who want to work as missing persons investigators at local police departments will need to complete police academy training first. Each state has different academy requirements, but information from the BLS and police science training programs show that most trainees learn about emergency planning, state laws, resource management, firearms safety, patrol procedures, emergency medical services, civil rights, and self-defense. Federal agencies may also have separate training programs.

Most states also require licensing for private detectives and investigators, and have minimum age requirements ranging from 18-25. License applicants must have a clean record, possess proof of U.S. citizenship, and, in some states, pass drug tests.

Upon meeting licensing eligibility requirements, most states require applicants to pay fees and pass exams. Exams can include questions about state law and legal terminology, surveillance techniques, undercover work, and evidence handling. Private investigators who wish to carry guns may have to apply for weapons permits. To be eligible for weapons permits, individuals may have to complete gun safety courses, in accordance with state laws.

People who want to become private detectives might also consider obtaining certification or attending a vocational training program. Certificate programs teach students about information-gathering, especially interviewing techniques, undercover and surveillance strategies, good field note practices, privacy laws, and surveillance strategies; investigation types, including fraud; and legal concerns, especially liability issues. Students also learn how to conduct investigations professionally so that all evidence gathered could be used within a court of law.

Step 2: Build Investigations Experience

At the local level, missing persons investigators are often detectives, but to become a detective requires first building law enforcement experience as a police officer. Federal investigators also need prior work experience related to criminal justice or law enforcement. Federal agent applicants should have a minimum of three years' experience in the field.

Private investigators often need suitable work experience in order to obtain state licenses. Most states require that private investigators obtain licenses and have at least three years of related experience, which may include law enforcement work, employment under licensed private investigators, or conducting insurance investigations.

Success Tip:

  • Develop a broad range of experience. Missing persons cases may involve other areas, including white-collar crimes, insurance fraud, identity theft, or corporate espionage. Investigators should work in as many other fields as possible before they focus on missing persons.

Step 3: Obtain Missing Persons Training

Public law enforcement detectives may pursue specialized missing persons training. Some agencies provide on-the-job training, but others might require investigators to attend formal classes. Course topics can include procedures for initial responses, community support, AMBER alerts, methods for working across jurisdictions, and missing persons databases.

There are some college courses that provide missing persons investigations training. Many of these courses are designed for emergency services providers or currently employed law enforcement agents. Private investigators may be eligible for enrollment, but some law enforcement experience is advised.

Step 4: Maintain Licenses, Continue Education, and Seek Promotions/Advancement

Private investigators must maintain their licenses and weapons permits. License renewal may require paying additional fees, submitting paperwork, taking continuing education courses, and showing proof of fingerprinting. Applicants may also have to pass background checks. Weapons permit renewal requirements may include recertification tests. For example, during the two years that a firearms permit is active, California requires permit holders to take requalification exams every 4-6 months.

Experienced private investigators may consider starting their own practice or seeking promotions in their firm. Additionally, they may seek employment working as security executives at large corporations. Police detectives or federal agents who work on missing persons squads have the opportunity to pursue supervisory or leadership positions and higher ranks, such as lieutenant or a special agent in charge (FBI). Those positions may require additional examinations, advanced degrees, and recommendations of superior officers.

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